Paul McCartney’s Ram was recently covered in its entirety by Portland, OR artist Dave Depper.By Clive Young.
Ask folks to name Paul McCartney’s best post-Beatles album, and most will point to Band on the Run or maybe Tug of War, but in recent times, 1971’s Ram has undergone considerable reevaluation. Generally panned upon release (John Landau called it “the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far”), 40 years on, the album has been reassessed by many—something that led to not one but two various-artists tribute albums in 2009. In 2010, however, Portland, OR-based artist Dave Depper upped the ante, re-recording the entire LP single-handedly at home in 31 days.
Depper had recorded and toured with the likes of Jolie Holland, Mirah and the Decemberists, and is a member of numerous Portland bands, so he had the necessary gear lying around. What he lacked, however, was motivation to see the project through, since the only reward was to see if he could actually do it. To keep himself on track, Depper started a blog and began posting each track hot off the press so that friends could hear the results and keep the pressure on to finish. Partway through his month-long odyssey, however, Jackpot Records found out about the homespun effort and dropped him a line. The result was thatThe Ram Project became a “real” record and was released in May, 2011 on CD and suitably retro vinyl LP.
We sat down with Depper to talk about the recording process, get his thoughts on the original album, and of course, find out what the heck was he thinking when he took on such a crazy project.
So what drove you to choose covering Ram over any other album in the world? Was it a favorite album from your childhood or something?
Other than hearing “Uncle Albert” and “Too Many People” on FM radio incessantly during my formative years, I don’t think that I actually heard Ram until my mid-20s. For most of my life, as far as Beatles solo careers went, I was a die-hard member of the Lennon camp. I believed in the popular consensus that McCartney’s solo career, with a few exceptions, was a load of shallow piffle. Being familiar with his radio hits, I was inclined to agree, and for some reason, I was never compelled to investigate further. Around the age of 25, I became obsessed with collecting vinyl, and bought all of Macca’s solo records at once at a used record store here in Portland. They were two or three bucks each.
I was positively shocked by how good so much of it was. There’s some dreck out there, to be sure, but the sheer amount of great music that McCartney released in the ’70s–and some of the ’80s–is pretty staggering. From then on, it became my mission to convert others to the McCartney solo album cause.
As for why I picked Ram, I had decided that I wanted to cover an entire record as faithfully as possible. I wanted it to be something that not everybody would be familiar with, yet not so obscure that nobody would have heard of it. I also wanted it to be a really complicated record that would be challenging to replicate. Ram fit the bill across the board.
Between your project and the two Various Artists compilations, that’s three covers of an entire album, which is pretty unusual. What is it about Ram that sparks that kind of artistic interest in it, particularly since it was considered something of a flop when first released?
I’m not really sure. It’s one of the few Beatles solo records that actually still sounds a lot like the Beatles, yet it’s not something that everybody and their mother has heard 4,000 times, like every Beatles album. I think that there’s also a sense out there these days of McCartney being the underdog–he’s spent so long in Lennon’s shadow, with his solo career being unfairly derided, that people are reevaluating him in a major way. It’s great.
So once you decided to cover Ram, how did you develop the rules—doing it all in one month, recording it all yourself, and so on?
There weren’t really any rules, other than I would not rely on any outside help, I would not use electronic trickery, like looping drum parts or auto-tuning vocals, and I would do it all at home with the equipment I had. Also, when a song was done, it was done–no going back and tinkering with it afterward. I didn’t plan on it taking 30 days; it just worked out that way!
What was some of the gear that you used for recording? Did you have to borrow or acquire anything specially for the project?
My gear list is very short. I used a MacBook Pro running Logic. My interface was the single-input Apogee ONE. The mics were two Shure SM57s and an Audio-Technica AT4033, which I used for the acoustic guitars and vocals. The guitars were a Les Paul Special and a Rickenbacker 330 and the bass was a Rickenbacker 4033 that I use on everything that I do. All of the keyboards were virtual, relying heavily on Native Instruments‘ amazing array of keyboard modelers, and GForce’s M-Tron was also used quite a bit. The drums were the worst piece of crap kit ever, borrowed from my friend Cory Gray, who I used to play with in Norfolk & Western. I don’t believe that he knows that I used them for this.
Dave Depper and friend
From what I understand, you recorded the drums hit by hit. Did you play to a click or to the original via headphones?
The drums were recorded one drum at a time for two reasons: I only had a single input–the Apogee ONE–and I didn’t want to mic the kit with just one mic. Also, at the time, I couldn’t really play the drums, so, each drum take was painstakingly constructed out of playing one at a time. I played everything to a click. Though I listened to the original a lot during the process, there was never a point where I actually played along to it. This method was brain-meltingly tedious and I wouldn’t recommend it. However, due to the separation, it did make for endless possibilities during mixing!
So what were the easiest and hardest tracks to record?
The easiest was certainly “Heart of the Country,” which is pretty much two guitars, bass, some percussion and singing; it was the first one I did. The hardest was definitely “Long Haired Lady”–it is a massive song, with many different tempo changes and instrument switchups. It took four days, I think. I also loathe the song “Smile Away,” so that was difficult in that I simply didn’t enjoy working on it!
I guess there’s a certain irony that when McCartney recorded Ram, he was coming off McCartney I, which he recorded at home, and he entered a state-of-the-art studio to make this one. Forty years later, you sort of brought it full-circle by using modern technology to record Ram at home.
Well, having an orchestra at the touch of my fingers was certainly easier than hiring the Portland Philharmonic–does that exist? Also, not paying for studio time was pretty luxurious. And modern technology allows for a much, much easier time when it comes to punch-ins–I certainly made heavy use of editing vocal and guitar solo takes together. I’m not ashamed of that!
Still, that had to be a pretty time-consuming process. Recording the entire thing in 30 days single-handedly—what else was going on in your life at the time? What did the people around you think of it?
I spent pretty much all of my free time that month recording this record. At the time, I was a member of the band Blue Giant, who were doing a month-long residency at a club in town, so that was an interesting juxtaposition. For the most part, people were very encouraging. I think a few people thought I was going through a bit of a late-20s crisis. But generally, the response from people close to me was overwhelmingly positive.
I’m sure some of that encouragement came from the blog, which is offline now. Tell me a bit about it–did the blog play into finishing the project?
The blog, which I will put online again at some point, was merely a way to put the songs out there. Each song was accompanied by a couple of paragraphs explaining the recording process, challenges, my personal feelings toward the song, and so on. The main reason I started the blog was so my friends could hear it, and so I would be criticized if I quit in the middle of it. In that respect, it did play into it, as I got to the finish line!
What were your plans for The Ram Project when you were done with it?
I had none whatsoever; it was intended as a personal project only.
So how did Jackpot get involved?
Isaac, the label owner, got a link to the blog through Facebook. Two songs into the project, I received a very flattering email from him in which he expressed his desire to release the project. I was flabbergasted. He’s been an amazing supporter throughout the whole process.
How did the mixing process go?
Amazingly. My friend Beau Raymond, a formerly LA-based producer, recently opened a fantastic studio called Family Farm in the Portland area, and he was completely geeked on the project. We spent hours picking apart various reverbs, vocal effects, etc. to try and recreate the original mixes as closely as possible. It was a blast.
Anything on the album that you wish you could go back and change?
I wish that I’d recreated the transition between “Uncle Albert” and “Smile Away.” I was in such a hurry to get done with “Uncle Albert” that I decided I didn’t need to. I’d been so painstakingly anal about recreating everything else on the album, and I was lazy about this one very important thing. This decision will haunt me for the rest of my days. Other than that, I wouldn’t change a hair on its head–it’s definitely not perfect, but I strongly believe in capturing a moment instead of overdoing it.
What’s next? Hopefully not a re-recording of Wild Life….
I’ve been busy with a myriad of projects lately. My band Loch Lomond just released a new record, so I’ve been dealing with the promotion of that. We’re also gearing up to record a new one. I’ve been playing and recording with a fantastic Portland band called Monarques, and the record is almost done. It’s a really great retro-’60s kind of thing, done in the best possible way. I’m also making painstakingly slow progress on my next solo record, which is all original material and sounds nothing like Ram. Hopefully I’ll have that wrapped up before 2015!
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